I am not a twin, but as a child I had an imaginary twin sister who would accompany me everywhere and agree with everything I said. Of course, I can see my naivety now: I had conflated “twin” with “ideal friend”, another version of yourself who is perfectly in harmony with you. But sibling relationships are rarely straightforward, and twins aren’t magically protected from the tensions created by weird family dynamics, clashing personalities and too much time spent in close proximity with each other.
When a twin relationship deteriorates, the breakdown can feel all the more marked because there was a greater expectation of closeness in the first place. With this in mind, I set out to explore twins in conflict in my novel I’m Sorry You Feel That Way.
Below are my picks for the most interesting twins in literature. Some display the closeness we might expect, but others are (perhaps more interestingly) beset by mutual resentment and distrust.
1. Esau and Jacob in the Bible
As an example of twins in conflict, this one is hard to beat. Jacob and Esau are on a collision course even before birth: in Genesis, we are told they “struggled together” within Rebecca’s womb, and when they are born, Jacob comes out second, holding on to Esau’s heel as if trying to pull him back. But the best part of the story comes when they are young men and their father Isaac is on his deathbed. Isaac wants to give Esau his blessing before he dies but Rebecca colludes with Jacob, her favourite son, to trick the now blind Isaac into bestowing his blessing on the wrong twin. When Esau discovers the deception, he vows to kill his brother, but Rebecca helps Jacob to flee.
2. Helen and Ellie in Beside Myself by Ann Morgan
The premise of this cracking novel is this: six-year-old identical twins Helen and Ellie play a game of swapping identities for the day. But then Ellie refuses to swap back. Previously, Helen had been the leader of the two, regarded as the cleverer, more confident one. Now Ellie has stolen that role from her, and no one will believe Helen’s protests. It might sound improbable, but it’s skilfully executed, and the book poses intriguing questions about family roles as we watch the ramifications of the swap play out across the twins’ adult lives.
3. Cersei and Jaime Lannister in The Song of Ice and Fire novels by George RR Martin
A complicated twin relationship if ever there was one, involving not only rivalry and scheming but also incest. Jaime and Cersei are of course baddies, and Cersei in particular seems irredeemably evil (she is considerably less sympathetic in the books than in the TV series, which is quite a feat). But there is still something touching about the love they have for each other. It is Cersei’s only humanising quality.
4. Rahel and Esthappen in The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
This is a tender, harrowing, gorgeously written (albeit easily parodied) novel of forbidden love in various forms. Twins Rahel and Estha are growing up in turbulent 1960s Kerala in India. So complete is their understanding of each other that “for them there was no Each, no Other”, but a terrible series of events leads to years of separation. The timeline is disjointed, moving back and forth between past and present as the novel explores the devastating consequences of transgressing social laws.
5. Desiree and Stella in The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Another pair of estranged twins feature in this ambitious exploration of race and identity. The identical Vignes sisters grow up together in a small black community in Louisiana, but after they run away at 16, their lives diverge dramatically: 10 years later, Desiree is living with her black daughter in the same small town she once fled, while Stella passes as white, with a husband who knows nothing of her past. It’s a fascinating premise, and Bennett follows its implications down through the second generation.
6. Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
I’m including this set of identical twins partly because they are iconic, and partly because I gave a critically acclaimed performance as Tweedledum in my primary school’s production of Alice Through the Looking Glass, so I feel a powerful connection to the character. Perhaps surprisingly given how well-known they are, Tweedledum and Tweedledee only feature in a single chapter of Through the Looking Glass. They recite a poem to Alice, taunt her with some weird philosophical banter, and then run away from a massive crow.
7. Aneeka and Parvaiz in Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
A reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone, this moving, elegant novel follows twins Aneeka and Parvaiz and their older sister Isma as they grapple in strikingly different ways with the tension between family loyalty and the laws of society. After Parvaiz joins Isis and is killed, Aneeka mounts a vigil in protest against the UK’s refusal to repatriate his body. In exploring complex questions of duty and identity, Shamsie delivers a novel that feels both timeless, and distinctly of its time.
8. Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night by Shakespeare
Shakespeare was interested in twins. He included not one but two pairs of identical twins in The Comedy of Errors, as well as Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night. The latter are obviously not identical, but after Viola disguises herself as a man, they apparently become indistinguishable (some suspension of disbelief is required). This leads to all manner of comedic confusion. Of course, Shakespeare himself was also the father of twins, Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet died at 11, about five years before Twelfth Night was written, and this knowledge gives added poignancy to Viola and Sebastian’s reunion at the end of the play, each having believed the other dead.
9. Hamnet and Judith in Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell
On a related note, there is O’Farrell’s imaginative reconstruction of Shakespeare’s domestic life, centred on the loss of his son Hamnet. There are many impressive aspects of this novel, not least the well-drawn character of Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes (“An-yis”). But most affecting of all is the bond between Hamnet and Judith. As Judith is dying of the plague, Hamnet lies beside her and wills death to take him instead: “You will stay, is what he whispers, and I will go.” And so it is that Hamnet dies and Judith has to live on without him.
10. Dora and Nora in Wise Children by Angela Carter
Another link to Shakespeare here: Angela Carter riffs on an array of Shakespearean tropes in Wise Children, four of whose characters (two sets of twins) happen to share a birthday with Shakespeare. The central protagonists are Dora and Nora Chance, chorus girls and identical illegitimate daughters of Melchior Hazard, a renowned Shakespearean actor and himself a twin to actor and explorer Peregrine Hazard, who raises Dora and Nora. If you feel exhausted just from this precis, don’t! This is an exuberant, dazzling novel that’s enormous fun to read; and by the end, no fewer than four sets of twins have been thrown into the mix.